Archive for November, 2009

First Snow

Last night when I went to bed, it was raining. This morning when I looked out the window, the first light dusting of snow greeted me. Winter, having stuck his foot in the door, is trying to force his way in. Big, damp flakes continue to fall, but it doesn’t look like this will be Winter’s day to prevail. The snow is beginning to melt. What a change from Saturday, when the bright, sunny weather tempted me outdoors for a hike. More about that tomorrow!

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Thought You Were Dead by Terry Griggs. Biblioasis, 2009.

Chellis Beith hasn’t had an easy life. Deserted by his mother on the counter of Lloyd’s Burger Stand in a Sorrell boot box, he was adopted by the quirky Rennie. Now Rennie has deserted him too, walking out of his life forever when she prematurely buys the farm in a motorcycle accident. And then there is the love of his life, Elaine, his ex-next-door-neighbour who married someone else and just wants to be ‘friends’.

Chellis stumbled into his occupation by accident. He is a literary researcher for a popular mystery writer. Normally, Chellis’s job isn’t too demanding, leaving him lots of time to loaf and hang out with his pal Hunt. Quite suddenly, Chellis’s life takes a turn for the weird. His employer, Mrs. Havlock has disappeared. Then Hunt is hospitalized with a heart attack. Then, his long-lost half-sister, someone he never had any inkling even existed, shows up on his doorstep. Then, his birth mother waltzes into his life. And where is Mrs. Havlock anyway?

There is a fun storyline behind Thought You Were Dead, and a satisfying ending. However, it is the witty, unrelenting banter that drives this novel. While the storyline tends to falter under the weight of the dialogue, there’s no skipping pages to see what happens. You’d miss too much fun!

The dialogue has a little hiccup when Chellis reflects “It was his impression that the general populace could care less about their forebears and would be only too happy to be shot of their present family.”
What? What? Could care less? If this seems okay to you, you need to drop by Grammarian’s site and read I Could Care Less.

However, things pick up a few pages later when Chellis is stopped by a cop who returns his wallet:
“That’s why I was following you, to give it back. And to check for a body in the trunk. Suzie said you were acting suspicious. Impersonating a detective, for one thing.”
The little prick. “I was suspicious, I’ll be wanting to count my cash. Or do you mean, suspiciously?” Save the Adverb. “I do sometimes act that way. Girls like it.”
Aha. Addressing the Ly unemployment rate. Gotta love it.

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Misty Morning


Misty Pond

Barn and Tree

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One of the most charming of American tall tales is the story of Johnny Appleseed. Many versions exist, but one of the nicest is Steven Kellogg’s picturebook. [Johnny Appleseed: A tall tale retold and illustrated by Steven Kellogg. Morrow Junior Books, 1988] Kellogg’s colourful illustrations bring the story of John Chapman to life. There really was a Johnny Appleseed. He was born in Massachusetts on September 26, 1774. He left home as a young man and finally found his way west to Ohio, still a wilderness frontier. There, he began his life’s work, planting apple orchards.

Johnny cleverly realized that as settlers arrived on the frontier and began to build homesteads, there would be a market for apple trees. Indeed, a law required settlers to plant fruit trees on their property as part of their commitment to the new land. Once Ohio began to become “crowded”, Johnny moved on to the wilds of Indiana, where he continued to clear land and plant orchards. Johnny never settled down himself, but led a rough, outdoors life. Gradually, stories and legends about his adventures and deeds also took root. When Johnny Appleseed died, in 1845, he left a significant estate, some 22 parcels of land, planted with orchards.

As his name suggests, Johnny Appleseed planted, not grafted apple trees as nurserymen do now, but apple seeds. Apple trees don’t grow true to seed. That is an apple tree grown from seed can be quite unlike its parent. As Michael Pollan points out in his book The Botany of Desire, by spreading apple seeds across the frontier, John Chapman gave the apple the gift of diversity. He made it possible for all sorts of apples to grow, and those trees best suited to the climate of America were then propagated by farmers. Most of the trees that John grew wouldn’t have had the plump, juicy fruit we munch on now. Rather, many would have been small, bitter apples, not good eating, but fine for making cider. As Pollan notes, what John Chapman really brought to pioneer settlers was the gift of alcohol.

At one time, cider was a very popular drink in America. Even children drank cider, as it was sometimes safer than the water, which might be polluted. Cider could be cheaply produced by anyone with enough space to grow a few apple trees. Prohibition and the temperance movement changed all that. While beer and spirits rebounded after the end of prohibition, cider never regained its earlier popularity in America.

The first time I drank cider was in England, where it remains popular and is readily available. Indeed, my old grannie introduced me to cider as it was her preferred drink. Cider is probably the easiest alcoholic beverage for a new drinker to enjoy. It has a pleasant, mild flavour and an alcohol content similar to or a bit higher than beer. Today, cider is fairly easy to come by in Ontario, but in spite of the fact that there are lots of apples grown here, the cider is usually an import from England. Strongbow is quite common, although there are a couple of other brands available.

The only Canadian brand regularly available is Growers, which is produced in British Columbia. It is made with Granny Smith apples, which is a bit ironic as Granny Smith is an Australian apple. Growers is a very sweet, sparkling cider and is quite like drinking pop, apart from the 7% alcohol content.

There is a bit of a cider renaissance underway, and perhaps more varieties of cider will be available in the future. One that is produced not too far from here is Waupoos Premium Cider. It is more like the British ciders than Growers is. Waupoos is produced in Prince Edward County, near Picton, Ontario. For more on cider, visit The Palate Jack.

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Perhaps you’ve heard the expression An elephant never forgets, but did you know that chickadees have amazing memories? If you watch the birds that come to your feeder you will notice that some, like the American Goldfinches (Carduelis tristis), will perch on the feeder as long as they are able before being chased off by others seeking the perch. Black-capped Chickadees (Poecile atricapilla), however, don’t spend much time at the feeder. They grab a seed and fly. They may take the seed back to a safe branch to eat right away, or they may hide the seed for later.

Chickadees cache seeds under bits of lifted tree bark and in other safe hiding places for times when food is scarce. They may retrieve a seed a few hours later or a few weeks later. Unlike some animals that build up a large cache in a safe hiding place, chickadees are scatter-hoarders. That is, every seed is hidden in a different spot. A chickadee can cache as many as 100,000 food items in a year. The surprising thing is that it can find where it hid all those seeds with amazing accuracy!

Scientists have long been interested in this memory feat, not just zoologists, but psychologists and neurologists who study memory as well. Many experiments have looked at how chickadees relocate their caches. Generally, it has been found that they depend upon a hierarchy of visual cues to locate hidden seeds. The position of the hidden item relative to larger landmarks such as trees is the most important cue, with more localized cues such as a particular arrangement of pine needles next to the cache being less important.

Their amazing spacial capabilities are related to the hippocampus region of the brain. Surprisingly, the geographic location of birds can affect the size of this structure. For example, Alaskan chickadees have a larger hippocampus than do Colorado chickadees. It is hypothesized that birds living in more extreme conditions are more dependent on being able to locate their caches reliably and thus have a larger hippocampus. However, a finding that some European species such as starlings have a larger hippocampus than their North American relatives remains puzzling.

While it may not be true that a chickadee never forgets, these little birds are pretty cool!

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Under the Big Top

The horses have an enclosed shelter in their field where they can get out of the rain and bad weather. However, they seem to get restless on long, rainy days, and end up standing outside, sometimes getting very wet indeed. I noticed that Canadian Tire carries an open do-it-yourself sort of pavilion that I thought might be a solution. The horses would be able to stand outside, as it were, but still be under the protection of a roof without feeling enclosed. It seemed worth a try, so RailGuy was enlisted to set it up.

His activity soon attracted a curious onlooker.

Louis considered the operation from every angle…

and then offered his advice.

The two girls, Mousie and Czarina watched from a distance…

preferring to wait until the final structure was in place to pass judgment.

Then they casually moseyed on over to check it out.

Their verdict? They approve. They seem to agree it is a good spot to enjoy an meal outdoors, and can eat their hay while staying dry on rainy days.

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There’s a low spot in the meadow that accumulates rain water. What with the weather having been quite wet this summer, this big puddle has been persistent. At it’s deepest spot it is only 6 or 8 inches in depth, however, so I was surprised when I was walking by it recently to see something swimming. Whatever it was darted away from me and into the shallow grasses, where it disappeared. I got around to investigating further this weekend. I dug out my dollar-store net and a bucket and put on my wellies. It took a while to spot the little critter. Finally I saw it zip away into the grasses, where I hovered over it for nearly a minute before my eye was able to pick out the tiny guy. He had already committed himself to such shallow water, there was no further escape, and I soon had him swimming in my bucket.

Once I could get a good look at him, the wee spines on his back made it easy to identify him as a stickleback, probably a Brook Stickleback (Culaea inconstans). This individual was about 35 mm long, but these fish can grow to about 80 mm, with 50 mm being a good average size. They are usually found in the quiet, vegetated waters of small rivers, ponds or lakes with sandy or muddy bottoms. The sticklebacks are part of the order Gasterosteiformes, which includes seahorses and pipefishes. Brook Stickleback eat small aquatic insects and crustaceans, and they in turn are eaten by other fish, birds, salamanders and garter snakes.

These little fish spawn in spring and early summer. The males build a round nest with a single opening and try to lure females inside. The nest is made from algae and other plant materials and stuck together with a mucous-like substance that the male produces in his kidneys. If he’s successful, the female lays her eggs and departs. The male then fertilizes the eggs and defends the nest fiercely from predators. He may fan the eggs to oxygenate the surrounding water. In 8 or 9 days, the young hatch. The male continues to guard them until they are able to swim away to fend for themselves.

How could this fish have found its way to this puddle of water? Perhaps it was carried there while still an egg, on the leg of a wading bird. I decided to release my catch into the larger pond. When I carried the bucket over to the pond, I noticed schools of little fish near the edge of the water. Having my net handy, I reached over and was able to scoop up a sample. These were a different species from my little stickleback.

I placed a few in a glass jar so that I could see them better. They appeared to be a species of shiner. Based on my mini-guide to mini-fish, they may be Bridle Shiners (Notropis bifrenatus), or perhaps the similar Blackchin Shiner (Notropis heterodon). These fish were about a centimeter smaller than my stickleback. Shiners are fish of clear, still, shallow streams and ponds, especially those with submerged aquatic vegetation along the shores and open areas where the fish can school. Spawning generally occurs in late May or early summer. Eggs are laid in clearings around dense vegetation, where they drift down and adhere to the vegetation. The young of the year remain in the vegetation until mid to late summer, when they begin to school, first with other young of the year, and then with adult schools.

Bridle shiners are visual predators and feed only during the day. They hunt for tiny invertebrates in the water column or around vegetation. They don’t do well in turbid, or dirty water as they need relatively clear water to hunt food. They are also poor swimmers, so therefore don’t cope well with changes in water flow. Neither of these characteristics would be helpful in coping with the water in our local stream, so it seems odd that they should be here.

There were other, larger fish visible in the pond, but they quickly zipped away into deeper water. Identifying them will be a good project for next summer.

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The Sound of Music

The orchestra warms up

On the weekend, RailGuy and I went out for dinner and an evening at the symphony. It was our first opportunity to see our daughter Fiddlegirl playing. She tried out for a place with the orchestra last year, but circumstances and distance have conspired to prevent us from making it to a performance until now. As the weather has been unseasonably mild, with no sign of early winter snow, we decided last Saturday would be a perfect night to make the 3 hour drive.

Hot Belly Mama's

As Fiddlegirl had an afternoon dress rehearsal, we met her and her beau at the concert hall afterwards and walked to a cute little place just down the street for supper. The restaurant has a New Orleans theme and features Cajun food. It was a nice spot to catch up over dinner. After post-dinner coffee and dessert at another little cafe, we headed back to the theatre.

Fiddlegirl arrives at the concert hall

Fiddlegirl took up the violin at the age of nine. This is late in the world of violin lessons, where three year olds are practicing goodie-goodie-stop-stop and working their way through Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. However, Fiddlegirl quickly made up for lost time and zoomed through the introductory levels. She seemed to have a little gift for music and the violin. Only rarely can a pupil climb through the grades with as little practice as Fiddlegirl could get away with! But climb she did. In the midst of her high school years, many other activities competed with violin lessons for attention. At university, she set her violin aside as she pursued studies in chemistry. Now that graduation is behind her and she is settled into a career, Fiddlegirl decided to dust off her violin.

Fiddlegirl and friend Mike at intermission

For this performance, the orchestra played Maurice Ravel’s Le tombeau de Couperin and joined the guest pianist in Frederic Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in F minor, followed by Mozart’s Symphony No. 40, G minor, K550 after the intermission. For me, it didn’t matter what the orchestra performed. Watching Fiddlegirl play with the orchestra, my heart sang its own song of joy.

The orchestra ready to perform

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The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-eye View of the World by Michael Pollan. Random House, 2001.

In recent years, Michael Pollan has spent a considerable amount of time at the top of the best-seller list with his books The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals and In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto. There’s even an Omnivore’s Dilemma for Kids. My interest in his earlier book was piqued by a recent PBS special based on The Botany of Desire. I really enjoyed it and highly recommend it if you have a chance to view it.

The idea behind The Botany of Desire is simply this: perhaps we are not, as we think, controlling plants for our own purposes but rather they are using our tastes to forward their own agenda, which is to extend their own range and numbers. Pollan looks at four different plants that owe much of their success to their ability to satisfy a human desire. Apples fulfill a wish for sweetness, tulips for beauty, marijuana for intoxication and potatoes satisfy the desire to have control over a food source.

Each of the four sections is interesting. Pollan is an amiable guide and the book is an entertaining read. My favorite, however, was the concluding essay on the potato. His description of what goes into growing a potato on a typical Idaho potato farm is an eye-opener. More than that, a shocker. It’s more like a chemical factory process than something you would connect with a garden. The regimen of pesticides and fertilizers that are applied relentlessly across the season is mindboggling. Part of the driving force behind this method of farming is another corporation, McDonald’s, who require a particular type of potato, the Russet Burbank, to produce the perfect fry, thus promoting a monoculture of Burbanks.

From this discussion Pollan seques into a discussion of the New Leaf potato, a genetically-modified vegetable that has Basillus thuringiensis (Bt) a common bacterium found in the soil introduced into its genetic makeup. The Bt makes the potato resistant to the scourge of potato plants, the Colorado Potato Beetle. How fields and fields, countless acres, of this genetically-modified plant would affect pollinators like bees or the resistance of non-Bt plants or weeds, or even the long-term health of people eating it is not well understood. Ultimately, there is agreement that the attacking beetles would become resistant to the modified plant, perhaps in 30 years. Then what? Monsanto, the developer of the plant doesn’t know. They say: We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it. Trust us!. Pollan also briefly discusses another wonder from the giant corporation, the terminator seed, a seed that has been modified not to reproduce. I suppose it’s overly dramatic to call such an invention the incarnation of evil, but really, what kind of greed does it take to even conceive of such a thing?

No discussion of potatoes could fail to look at the Irish Potato Famine. The Irish were among the first Europeans to embrace the plant, introduced from the Americas by the Spanish. The potato played a vital role in allowing the population of Ireland to climb from three million to eight million in less than a century. Young men could marry earlier and support larger families. As the supply of labour increased, wages fell, keeping the Irish impoverished. When the blight that destroyed the potato crop hit in 1846, and again in 1846 and ’48 one in every eight persons died, and thousands emigrated to America. Ireland’s population was halved within a decade.

The argument for commercial farms and genetically-modified crops rests in part on the view that the world’s population cannot be fed by any other means. It seems that we are perhaps heading in the same direction as the 19th-century Irish. Our population has grown too large to be supported by conventional farming methods. When the cheap oil that fuels it all collapses, what then?

My favorite part of the book is the conclusion, in which Pollan talks about his own garden, the neat, orderly rows of the spring season, the wild abandon of the late summer. He speaks of the pleasure of digging up potatoes with a rapture that leaves me longing to get out in the dirt. It’s been a few years since I grew potatoes. Hmm. Next year…potatoes.

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Reflections, marsh and open water.


Reflections, fall swamp


Reflections, river and clouds


Reflections, fall trees


Reflections, open sky

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